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ATABAT. The Shi`i shrine cities of Iraq, Najaf, Karbala, Kazimayn, and Samarra-comprising the tombs of six of the imams-are important centers of devotion, pilgrimage, scholarship, and political activism known as `atabat (“thresholds”).

Primacy among the `atabat is held by Najaf, 15o kilometers to the south of Baghdad; it is generally held to be the site of burial of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, first of the imams, the origins of whose shrine go back to the late ninth century. Karbala, 90 kilometers southwest of Baghdad, the place of martyrdom and burial of `Ali’s son Husayn, the third of the imams, was first endowed in the mid-eighth century but was temporarily destroyed a hundred years later by the ‛Abbāsid caliph al-Mutawakkil. Both Najaf and Karbala benefited substantially from patronage by the Shi-i Buyid dynasty during the tenth and eleventh centuries. Similarly, both escaped the depredations of the Mongol conquest of Iraq in the mid-thirteenth century and prospered under the Il-khanid dynasty founded by the Mongols. By contrast, Kazimayn, the site of the burial of the seventh and ninth lmams, Musa al Kazim (d. 802) and Muhammad al-Taqi (d. 834), being situated on the left bank of the Tigris opposite Baghdad, was extensively damaged by fire when the Mongols sacked that city. Timur, who conquered Iraq in 1400, settled endowments on Najaf, Karbala, and Kazimayn. Samarra, being situated 107 kilometers northwest of Baghdad, lies somewhat apart from the remainder of the `atabat and has generally played a less important role than the other shrine cities: it differs from them in having a largely Sunni population. It contains the tombs of the tenth and eleventh imams, `All al-Nagi (d. 868) and Hasan al `Askari (d. 873), and additionally is believed to be the site of the occultation, in 873, of Muhammad al-Mahdi, the twelfth imam (but not of his anticipated return). The shrines of Samarra owe their architectural origins to Buyid patronage.

In the sixteenth century, Iraq became an object of dispute between the Ottomans and the Safavids, and the `atabat accordingly changed hands several times. The veneration of the imams being a part (although admittedly a minor one) of Sunni religiosity, the Ottomans lavished patronage on the `atabdt almost to the same degree as their Safavid rivals; thus, projects inaugurated by the Safavid shah Isma’il during his visit to Iraq in 1506 were completed by Sultan Sulayman Qanuni (“the Magnificent”) after the Ottoman conquest of Iraq in 1534 Iraq and with it the `atabat passed definitively into Ottoman control in 1638, their rule being interrupted only by Nadir Shah during the years 1743 to 1746, an interlude notable primarily for the coerced Sunni-Shi’i dialogue that took place under his auspices in Najaf. The `atabat remained nonetheless part of the spiritual geography of Iran, and Iranian patronage of the shrines continued throughout the nineteenth century; this accounts for the largely Iranian appearance of the shrines in the present age (or at least down to the time of the Shi’i uprising that followed the Gulf War of 1991 and its suppression, with the attendant damage to both Najaf and Karbala). In the nineteenth century, Muhammad Shah provided for the repair of the damage inflicted on Karbala by the Wahhabiyah during their incursion of 1801, and his successor, Nadir al-Din Shah, commissioned much substantial work in all the `atabat during his visit to Iraq in 1870. Indian Shi`i potentates, notably the rulers of Oudh, also settled endowments on the `atabdt; when their principalities came under British rule, British officials in Iraq sought to make the administration of these endowments a means for gaining influence among the `ulama’ (religious scholars) of the shrine cities.

Pilgrimage to the `atabat has always formed an important part of Shi-i piety, being attested, in the case of Karbala, as early as 684. Such pilgrimage, consisting essentially of circumambulating the tombs while reciting a series of traditional prayers, serves such purposes as the expiation of sins, the making of vows, the accumulation of merit, and gaining the intercession of the imams in the hereafter. Karbala has been particularly favored for pilgrimage, not least because of the special qualities its soil, once moistened with the blood of Husayn and his followers, is believed to possess; it is often used to fashion the clay tablets on which shi-is place their foreheads when prostrating in prayer. Likewise, diluted in water, the soil of Karbala yields a beverage that is sometimes given to the dying to ease their passage from this world. Burial at the `atabat has traditionally been regarded as highly desirable, particularly at Najaf, in light of the tradition that whoever is buried there will be spared the torment of the grave and questioning by interrogating angels. Accordingly, to the northwest of Najaf, on the road leading to Karbala, there has grown up a vast cemetery known as Wadi al-Salam (“The Valley of Peace”). Despite the general recommendation of swift burial for the deceased, Shi`is from Iran and even India would often send their dead for burial at the `atabat as recently as the 1950s.

The `atabat have also been important in the intellectual life of Shiism; for example, Najaf is known as Dar al-`Ilm (“the Abode of Learning”), enjoying preeminence in this respect. The cultivation of scholarship in Najaf, going back to the time of Shaykh al-Td’ifah Abu Ja’far al-Tusi (d. 1067), has been uninterrupted until recent times; teaching would be conducted in the courtyard of the shrine itself as well as in madrasahs (Islamic schools) of varying size and prominence, of which thirty-three were to be counted in 1975. Nonetheless, Najaf was occasionally overshadowed by other centers of Shi`i learning, such as Hillah in Iraq, the Jabal `Amil in Syria, and, during the Safavid period, by Isfahan in Iran. The primacy of the `atabat was restored in the eighteenth century when chaos and insecurity in Iran prompted many scholars to seek refuge in Iraq, and it was in Karbala that a development of capital importance took place toward the close of the century: the triumph of the Usuli school of Shi`i jurisprudence over its Akhbari adversary, primarily through the exertions of Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Bihbahani (d. about 1791). With the establishment of relative stability in Iran by the Qajar dynasty in the closing decades of the eighteenth century, scholarly life began to revive in Iran, above all in Isfahan, and many of the pupils of Bihbahani took up residence there, fulfilling important political as well as religious functions. The `atabat nonetheless retained their importance throughout the nineteenth century; many leading scholars, of both Arab and Iranian origin, spent their entire careers there, and a period of study at the `atabat was essential even for those whose ultimate goal was power and influence in Iran. Comparable to Bihbahani in their accomplishments were three scholars resident in Najaf: Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi Bahr al-`Ulum Tabataba’i (d. 1797), a jurist remarkable for his gnostic inclinations; Shaykh Ja’far Kashif al-Ghita’ (d. 1812), author of an important text on the methodology of Sh-P! jurisprudence; and Shaykh Muhammad Hasan Najafi (d. 1850), who trained a whole generation of influential `ulama’. Leading scholars of the `atabat were, moreover, able to play a political role of some significance on several occasions in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Thus, in 1804, ‘Ali Pasha, the governor of Baghdad, sought the intervention of Shaykh Ja’far Najafi to dissuade an Iranian army from advancing on Baghdad. A similar role was played in 1818 by Aqa Ahmad Kirmanshahi of Karbala and in 1821 by Shaykh Musa Najafi, son of Shaykh Ja’far. When the Shi-i inhabitants of Russian-occupied Azerbaijan began to suffer persecution, it was to the `ulama’ of the `atabat that they turned for relief, and in 1826 Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani of Karbala issued a fatwd (formal legal opinion) calling on the Iranian government to go to war against Russia, traveling personally to Iran to ensure its implementation.

The continuing centrality of the `atabat for the Shi`i world was made fully apparent by the emergence in Najaf in 1850 of the first scholar to be universally recognized as the supreme authority (marja` al-taglid) in matters of law, Shaykh Murtada Ansari (d. 1864). Since Ansari was a quintessentially quietist scholar, this development had no immediate political consequences, but the enhancement of `ulama’ authority it implied was soon to impinge on the political life of Iran. Ansari’s successor as sole marja` al-taglid, Mirza Hasan Shirazi, left Najaf for Samarra in 1875, and it was there in 1891 that he issued the celebrated fatwa calling for a boycott of tobacco in Iran that was almost universally followed and led to the cancellation of the tobacco concession that had been granted to a British consortium. Fearful of the emergence of a new center of Shiism in a traditionally Sunni city, and mindful, perhaps, of the way in which Karbala had almost become a semiautonomous enclave in the 1830s, the Ottoman sultan Abdul hamid II took measures to counter Shirazii’s influence in Samarra and established a Sunni madrasah there under the direction of Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Baghdadi. For whatever reason, the prominence of Samarra was short lived; significantly enough, Shirazi was buried in Najaf on his death in 1895, and it was there that his successors resided and taught. Important among them was Mulla Muhammad Fadil Sharabiyani (d. 1904), who in contrast to Shirazx enjoyed collaborative relations with the Ottomans and benefited from their support in his efforts to curb the growth of Russian influence in Iran.

The importance of the `atabat as a center of religiopolitical direction beyond the reach of the Iranian government came clearly to the fore during the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1909. The cause of the constitutionalists was powerfully supported by three of the leading scholars of Najaf, all of them pupils of Shirazx: `Abd Allah Mazandarani (d. 1912), Mirza Husayn Khalili Tihrani (d. 1908), and Akhfind Muhammad Kazim Khurasani (d. 1911), the foremost among them in scholarly achievement. Their proclamations equating the constitutionalist struggle with jihad were regularly conveyed to Iran by telegraph, and it was from their circle that there emerged the most detailed vindication of constitutionalism in terms of ShIN doctrine, Muhammad Husayn Na’ini’s Tanbih al-ummah. When Russian forces entered Iran in 1909 in support of the absolutist monarch, several scholars of Najaf prepared to leave for Iran in order to direct popular resistance; however, they did not proceed beyond Karbala. The activities of the constitutionalists `ulama’ were opposed throughout by another senior scholar of Najaf, Sayyid Muhammad Kazim Yazdx (d. 1919). When Russian troops occupied several Iranian cities in 1911, the pro and anti constitutionalist `ulama’ buried their differences and jointly issued fatwas calling for resistance to the Russians. Some of the `ulama’ again planned to leave for Iran, but as before the movement was aborted, largely because of the sudden demise of Khurasanx. [See Constitutional Revolution.]

During World War I several scholars of Najaf, including Yazdi and Shaykh al-Shari`ah Isfahan! (d. 1920), as well as Mirza Muhammad Tagi Shirazx (d: 1920) of Karbala, issued fatwas calling for jihad against the foes of the Ottomans; in this, they were motivated both by feelings of Pan-Islamic solidarity and by hostility to Britain and Russia, enemies of Iranian independence for a whole century. Certain `ulama’, including Shirazi and Sayyid Mustafa Kashani, went so far as to participate personally in the fight against the British invaders of Iraq, notably in the battle at Kut al-`Amarah in 1916. The `ulama’ of the `atabat continued their resistance to the British after the defeat of the Ottomans; fatwas were now issued, by Shirazi and Shaykh Abu al-Hasan Isfahani (d. 1946), against the appointment of Sir Percy Cox as the governor of Iraq and were influential in causing the British to abandon their plans for imposing a mandatory regime on Iraq. The establishment of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq also met with opposition from scholars of the `atabat, notably Isfahani, Na’ini, and Shaykh Muhammad Mahdi Khalisi. Their campaign climaxed in a protest demonstration at Karbala in 1922, attended by some 300,000 people, which led to the exiling of Khalisi to Hejaz and the banishing of Na’ini and Isfahani to Iran. Once the agitation had subsided, the two were permitted to return to Iraq in April 1924.

Coincidentally with the foundation of the Hashemite regime in Iraq and, three years later, the replacement of the Qajars by the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, Qom began its rise to ascendancy as a center of religious scholarship and direction comparable to the `atabat. However, Shaykh `Abd al-Karim Ha’iri Yazdx (d. 1937), the main force behind this development, was not the sole marja` al-taghd, and all the other principal authorities of the day continued to reside in Najaf. These included Na’ini, Shaykh `Abd Allah Mamaqani (d. 1936), and Isfahan!, who came to enjoy unchallenged supremacy during the last ten years of his life. Roughly a year after the death of Isfahani in 1946, Qom supplanted Najaf as the chief center of religious guidance in the Sh!’! world through the universal acknowledgement of Ayatollah Mohammad Hosayn Borujerdi (d. 1962) as sole marja al-taglid. Even during the period of his leadership, however, most Arab and Indian Shi`is preferred to study in Najaf, and after his death there were as many claimants to his mantle in Najaf as there were in Qom. Chief among these were Ayatollah Abol-Qasem Kho’i (d. 1992), Ayatollah `Abd al-Hadi Shirazi (d. 1962, a few months after Borujerdi), and Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim (d. 1970). The Shi’i `ulama’ of the `atabat had been largely quiescent since the turmoils of the early 1920s, but the changes that followed the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 prompted them to resume comment on political affairs. Thus, in April 1960 Shirazi issued a fatwd condemning the Iraqi Communist party, one of the principal supports of the regime of `Abd al-Karim Qasim, and in 1968 al-Hakim protested publicly against the hostility shown to the Shi’i `ulama’ by the Ba`thist regime that had succeeded Qasim in 1963, a hostility that was to take on murderous dimensions in later years.

In October 1965, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989) arrived in Najaf, after a period of forced residence in Turkey, for an exile that was to last almost exactly thirteen years. In consenting to this move, the shah’s regime had hoped either that Khomeini would be silenced or overshadowed by senior scholars in Najaf, such as Kho’i and Muhsin al-Hakim, or that his revolutionary views would inevitably lead him to clash with them and create dissension among the `ulama’. However, Khomeini conducted his relations with the leading figures of Najaf with great discretion, and he appears in any event to have taught and lectured almost exclusively to Iranian students (the celebrated lectures on Islamic government were, for example, delivered in Persian to an Iranian audience). It is also not without significance that Khomeini was the first major religious leader who had received his training entirely in Iran; Qom rather than Najaf was his spiritual home. Despite occasional harassment by the Ba’thist authorities, intermittently eager to improve their relations with the shah’s regime, Khomeini was able to conduct from Najaf an effective campaign of opposition to the shah, receiving visitors from Iran itself and from the Iranian oppositional diaspora and issuing political declarations that greatly increased in frequency and effect during the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979. It can thus be said that under his auspices Najaf came to play a role analogous to that which it had exercised during the Constitutional Revolution seven decades earlier. [See Iranian Revolution of 1979]

By the time that Saddam Hussein deported Khomeini from Iraq in October 1978, at the request of the Iranian government, tensions between the Ba’thist regime and the `ulama’ of the the `atabdt had already been growing for several years. Since the early 1970s the annual celebrations of Muharram in the shrine cities had begun to assume a markedly political character, and in 1972 Ayatollah Muhammad Bagir al-Sadr of Najaf, a gifted political organizer and prolific author whose outlook was in many ways close to that of Khomeini, was arrested for the first time. Riots in Najaf and Karbala, first in 1974 and then in 1977, were brutally suppressed and led to the execution of numerous Shi`i activists. The triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in February 1979 and the fear that the movement might be replicated in Iraq inspired a still harsher policy in Saddam Hussein, and in June of the same year he had al-Sadr placed under house arrest. When it became apparent that Shi i revolutionary potential was nonetheless growing, Saddam Hussein had al-Sadr executed in April 198o, together with his sister, Bint al-Huda. (This measure might also be regarded as part of Saddam Hussein’s preparations for the war he unleashed on Iran in September 198o). From then on, the `atabdt-especially Najaf and Karbala-were subjected to unceasing waves of repression that took the lives of hundreds, including, in 1983, three of the sons of Muhsin al-Hakim, as well as many other religious scholars. In addition, numerous families of Iranian origin (including those who had been settled in Iraq for generations and held Iraqi nationality) were uprooted from the `atabdt and pushed across the Iranian frontier.

After the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War of 1991, the Shi’is rose in full-scale revolt, and Najaf and Karbala were freed from the control of the Ba’thist regime. But this triumph was short-lived, and when government forces retook the two cities, the reprisals were massive; in addition, numerous mosques and libraries were destroyed in the course of the fighting or sacked after its termination. Ayatollah Kho’i, who had studiously avoided all comment on the tempestuous events of the preceding two decades, was briefly arrested in April 1991 and coerced into appearing on Iraqi television at the side of Saddam Hussein. The death of Kho’i in August 1992 left the `atabdt without any leading Shi’i authority, and it is now in Iran, through a reversal of historical roles, that the scholarly traditions of Najaf are being preserved by refugee Iraqi `ulama’, notably Muhammad Bagir al-Hakim, a son of Muhsin al-Hakim. This circumstance, together with the material and demographic devastation that has been visited on Najaf and Karbala and the continuous repression practiced by the Ba`thist regime, has reduced the `atabdt to a state of unprecedented debilitation, recovery from which will be slow and difficult if at all possible.

[See also `All ibn Abi Talib; Husayn ibn ‘Ali; Karbala; Najaf; Marja’ al-Taqlid; and Sh!’! Islam, historical overview article. In addition, many of the figures mentioned are the subjects of independent biographical entries.]


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Algar, Hamid. ” `Atabat.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 2, pp. 9029o4. New York, 1987.

Batatu, Hanna. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. Princeton, 1978.

Haiti, Abdul-Hadi. Shi’ism and Constitutionalism in Iran: A Study of the Role Played by the Persian Residents of Iraq in Iranian Politics. Leiden, 1977.

Hakim, Muhammad Baqir al-. Qatl al-`Ulama’ fi al-`Iraq. Tehran, 1404/1984.

Khalili, Ja’far al-. Mawsu’at al-`atabat. 4 vols. Baghdad, 1382-1385/ 1969-1972.

Maghniyah, Muhammad Jawad al-. Ma’a `ulama’ al-Najaf al-ashraf. Beirut, 1984.

Mallat, Chihli. “Religious Militancy in Contemporary Iraq.” Third World Quarterly 10.2 (April 1988): 699-729.

Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shi`i Islam. New Haven and London, 1985.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/atabat/

  • writerPosted On: October 12, 2012
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